The week before last, the U.K. experienced unprecedented change, with both a new head of government and then a new head of state in just over 48 hours. The death of Queen Elizabeth II is more momentous and ushered the country into an unusual hiatus, with a mix of national mourning to mark one sovereign’s passing and regal ritual to welcome the new. However, when this ends with the late queen’s funeral today, the new heads of state and government, King Charles III and Liz Truss, will be left leading a United Kingdom that is profoundly divided.
The danger these divisions pose is exacerbated by the fact that the U.K. is a nation—or nations, to be more accurate, as it is a multinational state—that operates without a written constitution to clearly define the terms on which its constituent parts are governed, or indeed the precise limits in the power held by either the Crown or the prime minister in governing them. The ambiguities of an uncodified constitution have long been celebrated by Britons as a pro rather than a con, allowing political adaptation and evolution, and avoiding the stalemates and instability often seen in other countries.
Clearly, however, this flexibility has run its course. Brexit created an impasse for the country’s political system for years, and the leader who seemed to unblock it, Boris Johnson, has now been ousted—the third prime minister to fall in the past six years. Stability and political consensus are no longer words easily associated with the U.K. system of governance.
And far from “getting Brexit done” with an “oven-ready deal,” as Johnson promised the British electorate in order to win the December 2019 general election, he negotiated a permanent status trade treaty with the European Union that is far from fully cooked. As well as exacerbating the economic problems now facing the country, the most obvious political challenge comes from Northern Ireland.
Here, the terms of Johnson’s deal have led the main pro-Union party, the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, to register its protest by withdrawing from the Belfast government, thereby collapsing the power-sharing system that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement created to end a quarter-century of violent conflict in the region. In order to avoid creating a “hard” political border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Johnson’s Brexit deal allowed customs checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
While this averted the need for customs controls on the Irish border, an arrangement that would have undermined the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP feels that Johnson’s deal places barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The DUP argues that this undermines the Union and also pushes Northern Ireland toward eventual reunification with the Republic of Ireland, an outcome which the mainly Catholic and nationalist population of Northern Ireland would welcome, but the mainly Protestant and unionist community obviously fears. The resulting political standoff has left Northern Ireland without a regional government since February.
Even before she became prime minister, Truss sought to resolve this impasse as foreign secretary by introducing new legislation that could override aspects of the EU-U.K. trade deal relating to Northern Ireland. However, the EU, the Irish government and most nationalists in Northern Ireland oppose any unilateral changes to the treaty. They fear the new legislation will create what Brexit has long threatened to do and Johnson’s deal sought to avoid: the need for checks on the Irish border that will undermine the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland’s peace process. Truss thus faces much the same dilemma that her two predecessors, Johnson and Theresa May, did: how to make Brexit work without destabilizing Northern Ireland in ways that might eventually lead to its departure from the U.K. to join a united Ireland.
Another challenge to the integrity of the U.K. comes from Scotland, where the Scottish National Party, or SNP, is calling for a second independence referendum. The last such poll took place just eight years ago, in 2014, and saw 55 percent of Scots vote to remain in the U.K. However, once again, Brexit has complicated matters. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Scotland voted by 62 percent to stay in the EU, but was obliged to abide by the U.K.-wide vote, which saw 52 percent in favor of leaving. The SNP argues that the Brexit result invalidates the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, when many Scots chose to stay in the U.K., assuming it also meant remaining in the EU. Calls for a second Scottish referendum are therefore growing louder.
Truss’ response to these challenges has thus far been unhelpful. As noted, the legislation she proposed to resolve the Northern Ireland impasse has raised hackles in Brussels, which has threatened retaliatory legal action. And when recently asked about the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence, Truss insulted Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and first minister of Scotland, calling her an “attention seeker” and suggesting Truss would simply “ignore her.” Such disrespectful treatment will likely only fuel Scottish nationalism.
Two days later, Truss similarly managed to insult the Welsh first minister, hardly the behavior of someone seeking to lead the U.K. as whole. Indeed, cynics might suggest that both attacks were made with a mind to win support in England, the most populous nation in the U.K. with the highest concentration of Tory Party members, who determined the outcome of the leadership contest and will likely determine the outcome of any future general election. This might make short-term electoral sense, but it will not bind the wounds of post-Brexit Britain.
Previously, Queen Elizabeth served as a figurehead that was seen to unify the country, a largely symbolic head of state who stood above partisan political disputes. In her long reign, she was served by 15 prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill, and ending with her appointment of Truss just two days before her death. In this time, the country witnessed the building of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism; the U.K.’s entry into and complicated departure from the EU; and the decline of the British Empire as well as the emergence and evolution of the Commonwealth in its place. Through all this change, Elizabeth provided the U.K. with a sense of continuity and stability. Now she is gone, and questions have already been raised as to whether Charles will show the same acumen as his mother, steering the Crown clear of involvement in partisan politics. Previously, Charles has lobbied government ministers on policy issues, but if he continues doing so as king, he will severely test the accepted conventions of the U.K.’s unwritten constitution, creating further political division.
For those who believe in the British Union, the hope is that both Truss and Charles will recognize the significance of their new roles, displaying greater statecraft and diplomatic sensibility than each has shown in the past. Nationalists, who are growing in numbers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, might see this as the moment to unravel the union. They may even be aided in their efforts by English nationalists. Though the latter, unlike the other three nations of the union, have no political party formally representing them, some would argue that the Tory Party has effectively assumed this role.
Truss’ recent comments have done little to dispel such thinking, and as King Charles’ first prime minister, she has her work cut out for her if she is to unite his divided kingdom.
Peter McLoughlin is a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, where he focuses on contemporary political history in Ireland and Northern Ireland. He previously completed a Fulbright Visiting Scholarship at Boston College.
Source: World Politics Review LLC.